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GEOFFREY RAWLINGS, COTTINGHAM, BURMA WAR SERVICE 1940-1945 ORAL HISTORY RECORDING

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Originally deposited as a DVD-ROM Geoffrey Rawlings talks about his experiences, fighting the Japanese army in Burma during the Second World War, including his time as a 'Chindit' behind enemy lines in Burma, now Myanmar, disrupting Japanese supply routes, and time on the Burmese beaches driving the Japanese out after their surrender. Interviewed by East Riding Archives Collections Officer. Timing: (00:01) Introduces himself as Geoffrey Rawlings, born in Driffield, Westgate, in March 1918, just before the end of the First World War. When he was about three or four, the family moved to Hull where his father could get a job. They lived in Alexander Street and his father became the head caretaker of Osbourne Street School, where Geoffrey was educated. The school was bombed in the Second World War. (01:04) He left school and went into the grocery trade. He went to night school from the age of about fourteen. On 15 Jan 1940, at the age of 21 years and 10 months, he was called up. He'd tried to join up in 1939 at the Metropolitan Dance Hall in Hull. He wanted to be a gunner in the Air Force, but they wouldn't accept him and told him he would be called up when he was needed. In January he was enlisted in the East Yorkshire Regiment at Beverley barracks. There were some men from Sheffield as well as local lads. His number was 4345945. The '434' code referred to East Yorkshire, '5945' was the number of soldiers that had joined up at that time. (02:36) He trained to be a signal man in the infantry. Most of the lads he joined up with were sent to France, but returned quickly because of the withdrawal at Dunkirk. He missed Dunkirk and was given a job patrolling the coast. They would follow the coastline all night looking for landing craft or suspicious footprints. (03:40) The Americans came into the war to support the troops in Germany, so it was decided more soldiers were needed to defend the colonies. The Japanese were keen to seize control of oil, so they started to go through Burma, because of Burma Oil Companies. (04:04) Geoffrey was sent out to Africa in a convoy across the Atlantic to avoid submarines. He was originally going around the Cape to Madagascar which was held by the Vichy French. However, the French capitulated just as he was ready to go, so instead he was sent to Burma. They had to go through Mumbai (Bombay) because of the fighting in the Suez Canal. As part of the Signal Corps, they then had to go to the jungle in Burma to train in secret. They were going to fight behind enemy lines to harass supply routes and prevent supplies from being delivered to the Japanese. These expeditions were called [Long Cloths]. (05:30) The Japanese had marched through Burma until the monsoon season was due, when they realised that it would be difficult to manoeuvre the troops in the rains. They hunkered down in Kolhina. The British then went behind their lines to cut supplies, harassing them by blowing up railway bridges and viaducts. They were able to do this because of their earlier jungle training. (06:09) Geoffrey was in No 7 Corps, which was responsible for blowing up railway lines. When they returned behind enemy lines they found that the Japanese were using camels and elephants from the teak trade to transport their goods. The animals were carrying the supplies to a different train line which delayed their transportation. The British continued to harass the Japanese. When the British marched through villages, they had their own food, whereas the Japanese lived off the land and stole the villagers' food. The Japanese diet was similar to that of the locals e.g. rice etc. It got to a point where the Japanese troops had taken all the food and the Burmese had been unable to till the land and grow more. At Kurimar the Japanese began to run out of food because the British had cut off their supplies from Southeast Asia (07:45) The Japanese would arrive at a village and demand that the people feed them. On one occasion Geoffrey's corps marched into a village and there was no-one around, but there was a big cauldron of rice cooking in the centre. The soldiers ate all the rice, hid and then waited for the enemy to return. When they came back, a fight took place. (08:19) The British continued their march for about a month, passing Chinwin up to Shwa Bo and crossed the Iriwadi river. At this point they had to decide their next move. Geoffrey was with Major Kenneth Jylkes of the King's Regiment, and the last remaining 30 to 40 men. Although he had a radio set he couldn't get an answer because it had been jammed. The radios were only able to transmit for 100-200 miles and they were 300 miles behind enemy lines. He was getting constant interference and he could only hear All India radio, which was broadcasting a church service. They were singing 'I look to the hills from whence cometh my help'. The Major regarded this as a prompt and decided to continue to China; so instead of going west they went east over the mountains. (10:30) The journey took them six months. They arrived at Po Shang, near Ku Ming, where there was an airfield. It was occupied by American soldiers with Dakotas and one or two fighters. When Geoffrey's troop arrived they were bearded, ragged and full of lice. They had no food and asked for bread. They were told there was a British unit down the road. By this time Geoffrey was a corporal so he went to the British and explained there were thirty men who had been behind enemy lines for six months and needed some bread. The sergeant replied he only had rations for his own men and refused to give him any food. They went back to the airfield where the Americans offered them food and provided washing machines for them to wash their clothes. The American officer had a fancy pistol with a pearl handle, high boots, a handkerchief and a 'Yankee hat'. The Dakotas were flying in medical supplies and flying out tungsten from the Chinese mines, for the war effort. They flew over what they called 'the hump' and they were called the Yankee targets. When they offered to transport the British soldiers the Major asked if he had to sign anything relating to the men's safety and was told by a US officer to just get on board, they didn't bother with anything like that. When they were being flown back the British asked what they should do if they were attacked, a US soldier told them to put their guns through the porthole and shoot. However, they needn't have worried, because the plane wasn't pressurised, so as they went higher they fell asleep and woke up in India. (13:25) In India, they were hospitalised because they had lost a lot of weight. Geoffrey hoped that he would get a nice office job, but in June 1943 he was posted to the 25th Indian Division, a unit that was about to go into action. In Aracar they got stuck in a village called Mawndaw and then in Akyab. They occupied a waterhole as they knew the Japanese would need water. (15:09) They had dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima by then, so the Japanese were trying to get home, but they were loathe to give up because they did not want to believe the war was over and they had been defeated. They were beginning to withdraw and the British were pushing forward to keep them moving. However, they continued to fight rather than leave. Geoffrey believes the Japanese were afraid because they had treated the British badly; beheading soldiers. They had also been very cruel, killing whole villages for food, so they were scared that the British would retaliate in the same way. (16:12) He was repatriated in 1945-1946 because his wife had fallen during an air raid and was not well. By the time he returned home on a hospital ship, the Americans had left and the war was over. There was no welcome for troops returning from Burma, they were the 'forgotten' army. (17:20) Serving in Burma and China had been a real adventure, during his time in the army he had worked in radio communications with a number of different regiments and had served under Brigadier Wingate. They had to keep moving, so food and ammunition were dropped by aircraft, which he had to ensure were coordinated. His equipment - radio set, charging unit and encoder - was carried by mules. Sometimes when they were struggling to find food they had to eat the pack animals. A column consisted of about 200 men. His friend, Eddie Fountain, was kicked by a mule and fractured his knee. Geoffrey carried him for miles but eventually the Major decided he could not be carried any further. He was left by the roadside without a rifle or ammunition, in the hope that the Japanese would spare him. Geoffrey thinks that he was captured and died in captivity. (23:55) He then served in the Royal Signals with the King's Regiment, where he lost his mule so he became an infantryman. He moved to the 25th Indian Division, where they dug in to fight the Japanese army. In one attack, Gurkha troops threw hand grenades, but they did not go off. Early the following day there were a series of explosions and they discovered that the troops had not removed the wax covering on the grenades. However, when the sun came up the wax melted and they exploded, killing Japanese troops. (32:00) Conditions in Japanese-occupied territory were bad; the British soldiers were infested with lice, leeches, ticks, and often had diahorrea, sickness and fever. They also suffered from malaria. Geoffrey once collapsed on the parade ground because he'd had malaria in action. Medical supplies were limited, as was food and water. They grew thinner and had to dump supplies as they were too weak to carry them. (34:00) Food was found in the villages; the local people understood what plants could be eaten; bamboo was useful for sap. The soles of their army boots wore through so there were holes in them. The soldiers learnt patience, living with each other in distressed conditions. They had an elderly Burmese guide who would speak to the villagers. He would see the head man and ask if they could stay the night. If agreement was reached then the soldiers would sleep under bushes and they would eat snake or monkey. Once they ate Koi fish which they found in a monastery. During the monsoon, the rain was so heavy they covered their heads with leaves to help protect them from the pounding (39:00) Morale was low and the soldiers were distressed as they did not know if they would make it. They looked to Geoffrey and Major Jylkes to get them out, which they did. Geoffrey was mentioned in dispatches in recognition of his role, and he was promoted in the field for bravery by the Major, becoming a King's Corporal. He respected his superior officers. Troops were coached to greet high-ranking officers with three cheers. However, in the field many soldiers broke down, regardless of their rank. Geoffrey sometimes felt afraid, but he was unable to show it as he had to support the men. Geoffrey finds it difficult to say what bravery is; but thinks it is probably a frame of mind, where you dig in and fight back. He thought Major Jylkes was a marvellous chap. When they got back, the Major returned to the King's Regiment and Geoffrey went back to his depot. He never heard of him again. (42:43) His training taught him to look after himself and watch the enemy. His main concern was to keep the radio safe and look after the other soldiers. He never shot anyone or engaged in hand-to-hand combat. (44:00) He came across spies, fifth columnists. They dressed in British uniforms to try and convince soldiers that they were friends rather than foes. Often the Indians were enemy sympathisers; you could not believe what you saw. However, some soldiers were just ordinary people, they were not real Nazi believers. There were people of mixed religions, called up to fight. Geoffrey does not blame this generation for their parents and grandparents actions. The Japanese did not teach children about the war, so they were often unaware of what happened. Public access copy available on Preservica: https://eastriding.access.preservica.com/ (Search 'DDX1708/1')

2011

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